Sunday, June 16, 2013

Why I Am Not Impressed with the Edward Snowden NSA Leaks, So Far

Whenever a major government scandal makes the front pages of newspapers, I try to keep in mind this clip from the movie JFK, when Joe Pesci, playing David Ferrie, attempts to explain the misdirection, interweaved with facts, that results in a view, for a careful outside student of a situation, that looks like a "mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma."

Early on, I wrote about the Edward Snowden NSA leaks that were reported by Glenn Greenwald:
Are we being set up for a more open aggressive tracking by the government? I have no reason to question the sincerity of Glenn Greenwald and his desire to break open the secretive tracking of Americans by the United States government. However, I am very suspicious of the manner in which MSM jumped on the story and pushed it so hard.
What caused my thinking to go in this direction is the fact that earlier whistleblowers had warned about NSA spying on Americans and MSM paid little attention. Yet, Snowden providing information that would do little damage to the spying network, that is, the information that the NSA was collecting phone numbers from Verizon, was given major coverage from MSM. Who the hell didn't already know something like this was going on?

I wrote when the Snowden story was first breaking:
Anyone paying close attention to the news would have suspected, a long time ago, that something like this type of spying and data collection was going on. Indeed, I regularly commented on such here at EPJ, most recently  on May 4, in a post titled, Are All Telephone Calls in the US Recorded by the Government?, I wrote:
I have always suspected that they are. Now, there is evidence this is the case. Glenn Greenwald reports:
The real capabilities and behavior of the US surveillance state are almost entirely unknown to the American public because, like most things of significance done by the US government, it operates behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. But a seemingly spontaneous admission this week by a former FBI counterterrorism agent provides a rather startling acknowledgment of just how vast and invasive these surveillance activities are.[...]On Wednesday night, Burnett interviewed Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, about whether the FBI would be able to discover the contents of past telephone conversations between the two. He quite clearly insisted that they could[...]
On Thursday night, Clemente again appeared on CNN, this time with host Carol Costello, and she asked him about those remarks. He reiterated what he said the night before but added expressly that "all digital communications in the past" are recorded and stored.
Notice that the above Greenwald commentary goes beyond his current report that is causing all the focus, his  current report being that Verizon provided data to NSA of all phone calls made over its networks during a given period. Thus, it appears we have something of a limited hangout here by USG. The purpose is unkown, though I suspect what may be going on is that the USG may be wanting to use in court cases some of the data they are collecting. BUT in order to do this, they have to acknowledge they have the data in the first place, which may be what the leak to Greenwald is all about (and the leaks to WaPo about USG tracking internet data).
Since then we have this speculation from Naomi Wolf:
I hate to do this but I feel obligated to share, as the story unfolds, my creeping concern that the NSA leaker is not who he purports to be, and that the motivations involved in the story may be more complex than they appear to be[...]Some of Snowden’s emphases seem to serve an intelligence/police state objective, rather than to challenge them.

a) He is super-organized, for a whistleblower,  in terms of what candidates, the White House, the State Dept. et al call ‘message discipline.’ He insisted on publishing  a power point in the newspapers that ran his initial revelations. I gather that he arranged for a talented filmmaker to shoot the Greenwald interview. These two steps — which are evidence of great media training, really ‘PR 101″ — are virtually never done (to my great distress) by other whistleblowers, or by progressive activists involved in breaking news, or by real courageous people who are under stress and getting the word out. They are always done, though, by high-level political surrogates.

b) In the Greenwald video interview, I was concerned about the way Snowden conveys his message. He is not struggling for words, or thinking hard, as even bright, articulate whistleblowers under stress will do. Rather he appears to be transmitting whole paragraphs smoothly, without stumbling. To me this reads as someone who has learned his talking points — again the way that political campaigns train surrogates to transmit talking points.[...]Again I hate to cast any skepticism on what seems to be a great story of a brave spy coming in from the cold in the service of American freedom. And I would never raise such questions in public if I had not been told by a very senior official in the intelligence world that indeed, there are some news stories that they create and drive — even in America (where propagandizing Americans is now legal)

As for the filmaker that Wolf mentions, yesterday there was a mini-profile about her in NYT. NYT tells us:
 The filmmaker Alex Gibney recalled bumping into his fellow documentarian Laura Poitras at the airport last year, when they both happened to be taking the New York-to-London flight.

“She warned me that she was on a watchlist, and that she would be pulled out of the line,” he said Tuesday in an interview. “And sure enough, she was.”

Last week, Ms. Poitras, 49, emerged as the pivotal connection between the former government contractor Edward J. Snowden and writers for The Guardian and The Washington Post who published his leaked documents about government surveillance.
In other words, Poitras is no bit player in the Snowden drama. But the big question is, how did NYT know to contact Alex Gibney to verify that, yes, Poitras does get pulled out of lines at airports? Did Poitras provide this lead to NYT to establish her anti-government creds? Interesting.

NYT continues:
In an interview Wednesday from a hotel in Hong Kong, she described herself as an unexpected player in the Snowden leak. “This is not something I was seeking out,” she said.

Mr. Snowden first contacted her in January[...]

 Still, the way Mr. Snowden’s leaked document about Prism — the National Security Agency program that collects data from online providers of e-mail and chat services — was published is hardly typical. Both The Guardian and The Post wrote about a top-secret slide presentation on Prism at roughly the same time; for the Post article, Ms. Poitras shared a byline with Barton Gellman, whom she knew from their time together on a fellowship at New York University and contacted in February.

Later, for a profile on Mr. Snowden in The Guardian, Ms. Poitras shared a byline with Glenn Greenwald, a civil liberties writer she knew from the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and Ewen MacAskill, a Guardian reporter.

In the interview, Ms. Poitras declined to elaborate on how the two articles came about.

She also shot the 12-minute video in which Mr. Snowden explains his motivation for leaking. It has been viewed 2.5 million times, according to The Guardian, since it was posted over the weekend on the newspaper’s Web site. 
Ms. Poitras also sought to deflect attention from herself and her role. 
Bottom line, Poitras may want to deflect attention from her role, but, in fact, she is a major player. Wow, try this at home, try to be a bit player and provide some information to WaPo and the Guardian and get bylines at both papers! Her role seems to explain why MSM paid so much attention to the Snowden leaks in the first place, that is, she is very media savvy and would know how to place a story to get maximum coverage out of a story.

Thus, do we have a straightforward story of Snowden just lucking out and hooking up with a filmaker, who also happens to have extraordinary media savvy and media connections or is this a case of a "mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma,"  where Poitras was in the plotting at the very early stages, for reasons unclear to outsiders?

I don't think there is enough information to make a call on this from the outside, at this time. That said, I am not impressed with the Snowden leaks to date. He has only leaked information that a closer follower of government snooping would have already known about or suspected.

Greenwald has reported that there are more Snowden leaks to come. Let's see what the nature of those leaks are. Will they truly provide shocking revelations or just more unimpressive repackaged news? This may provide the best clue as to whether Snowden is a new generation anti-state cyber-warrior hero  or a cleverly crafted state operative in play to advance a very dangerous new totalitarian grab of control over the people.


  1. If NSA is tapping everybody's phone calls that means they are listening to all the power players in Washington. Even their rival intelligence agencies like the CIA is being bugged. This could be a plot the CIA the targeted at the NSA. Snowden is ex CIA and much of the media is infiltrated by the CIA. It also serves Obama by providing a nice distraction from his other scandals. Obama is ex CIA.

    1. Yes, interesting because it is very plausible. Nice job on listing the points Bob. Agency infighting would explain a lot as to why Snowden has had time to prepare, and also why the FBI was willing to reveal things not previously acknowledged.

      Is it any coincidence that James Bamford releases his expose last week?

      That article is a big tell as to how powerful Gen Alexander is. If you were trying to reign in that kind of power in order to keep your turf under control, and you were the CIA, this would be a textbook op, no?

      What if this is CIA payback for the David Petraeus scandal?

      Very interesting. Could it be that the NSA had some hand in bringing Petraeus down?

      If this is really about budgets and control, I think there is a real power struggle going on. This would all be par for the course.

  2. "Anyone paying close attention to the news would have suspected, a long time ago, that something like this type of spying and data collection was going on."

    And yet, mere suspicion that "something like this type of spying" was going on puts you in the camp of the conspiracy theorist, while Mr. Snowden has provided evidence. There's a pretty big difference between believing a proposition based upon suspicion and believing something based upon evidence.

  3. I don't know, this isn't just the usual bureaucratic scuffle in the carpark, and if if it is true that Snowden is an Langley guy, that's a drive by in the south side of Chicago. And we would have heard from the NSA's media tools by this time if he was. One way to know if the feds get their hands on him and how he is treated like bradley Manning or worse, then you guess he's legit.

    1. or even further the politicians have lost control of the generals.

  4. I think it is nieve of Naomi Wolff to think that every whistleblower is going to follow exactly the same pattern. If they have half a brain, one would learn from the mistakes that others have made. It seems that at least Snowden has a plan to make sure that the information he thinks is of interest to the public is being disseminated (leveraging Poitras' contacts) as well as how to possibly avoid being deported back to the US. That's doesn't make it a conspiracy, it's intelligence. Saying that always watch your six, since as anyone with half a brain knows, YOU CANNOT TRUST A GOVERNMENT.

    1. This is not what Naomi is saying. She specifically said exactly what Bob has elaborated on, in that Snowden is extremely well organized and extremely well prepared. In her experience in these circumstances, this is the outlier, not the norm. She is suggesting caution and due diligence in investigating what is happening.

      I happen to agree with her and with Bob. Given the seriousness of the message along with the extensive media attention surrounding it, there is a smell test issue here.

      Now in my opinion, this could be as simple as inter-agency retribution. Is the CIA willing to kill another agency's big-budget program in order in order to secure the "high" ground? That's a no-brainer in this game if the stakes are what I think they are.

    2. Yes. Snowden has thought this out very well. Just the appeals process in Hong Kong will cause the case to be dragged out for at least 10 years! LOL!!! Also he has already won in the court of public opinion which puts the Obama Administration in a difficult position. Also the fallout in other areas such as Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) because of privacy concerns raised by his disclosures, the Trans Pacific Partnership which like TAFTA grants enormous powers to corporations and investors over sovereign governments which the Obama Administration was forced to allow access to congressman Alan Grayson as well as the GMO contamination scandal in Oregon involving Monsonta whose ex-employees are throughout Obama's administration leaves me to believe that as you state that things will be shaken up quite a bit. I still hold to the view that Snowden is just very intelligent in the way that he approached this. A bit like an analyst who did his homework!

  5. Snowden claims to have been contemplating blowing the whistle since the Bush years, which is not implausible. He is obviously an intelligent guy and has had more than fours years to think this through carefully. The conspiracy theory is interesting, but to my mind less likely to be correct than the story at its face value. Had the NSA or CSA wanted the information to come out to influence public policy in favor of their warrant-less surveillance practices, they would have chosen more flattering circumstances for a disclosure.

    The MSM may merely be reacting to "not let a crisis go to waste" after the Guardian/Post stories went viral.